The ground game

Coal is still a power in the region, but one day it may be grounded for good.


In October, Colorado became the 24th state to challenge the Clean Power Plan, President Barack Obama’s attempt to slow down climate change by cutting carbon emissions from coal-burning plants. Colorado’s attorney general, Republican Cynthia Coffman, is behind the lawsuit. Colorado’s governor, Democrat John Hickenlooper, is against it. Coffman says it’s her duty to challenge the plan and its enforcer, the Environmental Protection Agency. Hickenlooper says that Colorado can achieve the plan’s goals and that the governor should have the final say on whom the state sues. He’s asked the state Supreme Court to decide.

This kerfuffle should come as no surprise to anyone who lives in coal country. Once a stalwart economic driver for many Western communities, coal is losing ground. Here in Paonia, Colorado, two of the three coal mines operating up the valley recently cut back on production. Our neighbors are losing their jobs, and local businesses are losing money. Some mine workers are trying to stick it out; others have put their homes up for sale and moved on. These are tough choices. We want clean air and a cooler climate, but not at the expense of the family down the street.

Typically, the so-called “war on coal” is actually a war on the plants that burn coal and emit carbon into the atmosphere. That’s what the Clean Power Plan is about. But as HCN correspondent Elizabeth Shogren reports in this issue’s cover story, some activists are now targeting the “supply side” of carbon by challenging the federal coal program in court. They are demanding that the federal agencies involved consider the environmental costs of unearthing coal, burning it, and releasing more carbon into the atmosphere. At least one federal judge has ruled in their favor.

In Western states like Colorado, where coal production hit a 20-year low last year, or Wyoming, where production has fallen 17 percent since 2008, miners are unhappy, to say the least. That’s why Colorado, Arizona, Montana, Utah and Wyoming are fighting the Clean Power Plan.

HCN managing editor Brian Calvert

So far, the lawsuits have not slowed coal production, and the outcome of the states’ challenge of the plan may be years away. But while we are undoubtedly in for a protracted melee between states, environmental groups, industry reps, unions and others, it’s getting harder to imagine the coal industry coming out on top. The owner of the last mine operating at full capacity in our valley, Arch Coal Inc., is on the edge of bankruptcy, facing tough competition from both natural gas and renewables along with stronger regulations.

Coal is still a major power in the region, but green litigators, economics and other outside factors may one day ground it for good. When that happens, it will be a bittersweet moment for the West.  

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